March 2011

Opener a blueprint special

On a raw Thursday afternoon, the Yankees got the 2011 season off to the best possible start with a 6-3 victory over the Tigers. The Yankee Stadium crowd of 48,226 had plenty of opportunities to try to stay warm in the chill and wind by standing and applauding.

Mark Teixeira, who has a history of poor starts to seasons, crushed a three-run home run off flame-throwing Justin Verlander in the third inning that erased a 1-0 deficit. A year ago, Tex didn’t hit his first home run until his 12th game during a miserable April when he batted .136.

“I have been petitioning the league to start the season in March for years because of how bad I have been in April,” he said after the game. “I’m glad they finally listened to me.”

Whether he can continue this into April, which begins Friday, remains to be seen, but Teixeira addressed the issue this spring by concentrating more on hitting during spring training. “A lot of time with all the stretching and weights work and conditioning you do in the spring, hitting is the last thing you think about,” Tex said. “I did a lot more swinging of the bat this spring.”

“It seemed before and after every game, I’d see Tex in the cage,” manager Joe Girardi said.

The skipper had reason to be pleased from first to last inning. The pitching fell into place ideally. CC Sabathia matched Verlander for six innings and turned over a 3-3 game to the bullpen, which was nothing short of perfect – three up and three down in the seventh for Joba Chamberlain, who got credit for the victory, in the eighth for new setup man for Rafael Soriano and in the ninth for closer Mariano Rivera.

“Sometimes it works out just how you draw it up,” Girardi said.

He got a scare in the first inning when center fielder Curtis Granderson, who was a questionable starter because of the oblique injury he sustained in spring training, made a diving catch.

“I was concerned the way he landed,” Girardi said, “but he was all smiles in the dugout after, so I figured he was all right.”

There’s an understatement. Granderson had a Willie Mays day in center field. The first-inning grab was one of three highlight-reel grabs for Granderson, who also smoked a home run leading off the seventh inning to break the tie. Equally encouraging was that the blow was off lefthander Phil Coke. Granderson is a .215 career hitter against lefties. It marked the third straight Opening Day that Granderson has homered.

Derek Jeter’s new stride-less approach at the plate didn’t produce any hits in the start of his climb to 3,000, but he drove in a run with a sacrifice fly and scored another when he walked in front of Teixeira’s bomb.

Another good sign was the effort of catcher Russ Martin, who handled the staff adroitly, got a hit his first time up, showed some savvy on the bases with a swipe of third and scored two runs. He was the lone unfamiliar face in the Yankees’ lineup, but one that fans will soon get to know.

The Elias Sports Bureau pointed out that the Yankees had the same starting infield (Teixeira at first base, Robinson Cano at second, Alex Rodriguez at third, Jeter at shortstop) and outfield (Brett Gardner in left, Granderson in center, Nick Swisher in right) for consecutive openers for the first time since 1926 and ’27 when they had first baseman Lou Gehrig, second baseman Tony Lazzeri, third baseman Joe Dugan and shortstop Mark Koenig in the infield and left fielder Bob Meusel, center fielder Earle Combs and right fielder Babe Ruth in the outfield. It was also the first time the Yankees had the same three outfielders in back-to-back openers since 1967 and ’68 with Tom Tresh in left, Joe Pepitone in center and Bill Robinson in right.

March madness

Baseball in March. What a concept. The powers that be in Major League Baseball cannot seem to figure out a way to condense the regular-season schedule so that World Series games do not dip into November, so the season now starts at a time that used to be reserved for the winding down of spring training.

The weather was less than ideal for the Yankees’ season opener Thursday at Yankee Stadium. The first-pitch temperature was 42 degrees, and the wind was whipping the flags on the roof. Mike Mussina, who someone joked could probably still make the Yankees’ rotation, handled the duties of tossing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Not surprisingly, Derek Jeter received the loudest ovation from the crowd in pre-game introductions. The captain batted second in manager Joe Girardi’s first lineup of the season with center fielder Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot. This will be the look at the top of the order when the opposing starting pitcher is right-handed, as is Detroit’s Justin Verlander. Jeter will go back to leadoff and Gardner to ninth against left-handed starters. Nick Swisher will likely hit No. 2 vs. lefties.

Girardi made it clear before the game that Jorge Posada’s days as a catcher are all but over. Now a full-time designated hitter who batted seventh Thursday, Posada won’t be counted on to work behind the plate. Girardi, himself a former catcher, was asked if Posada would be considered an “emergency” catcher in the event that newcomer Russ Martin and backup Gustavo Molina get hurt in the same game.

“Well, we might put Jorgie out there before someone like [Eduardo] Nunez,” Girardi said, referring to the backup infielder.

Well, that’s pretty plain. It sounds as if Posada can throw his old shin guards away.

Wednesday night, the Yankees held their annual Welcome Home Dinner at the New York Sheraton, a splendid affair that was attended by all the members of the team as well as club executives and employees.

In the VIP cocktail hour before the game, Hall of Famer Goose Gossage signed autographs with fellow former Yankees Tino Martinez, Lee Mazzilli, Oscar Gamble and Rick Cerone.

Deborah Tymon, the Yankees’ vice president of marketing and the dinner’s organizer, was given a special award from managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. Debbie said that the late George Steinbrenner told her when she began running the dinner to make sure the food and service was first rate but, most importantly, that the players get out early so they can get plenty of rest before the home opener.

The special moment of the night was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who was also at the Stadium bright and early Thursday to tour the clubhouse and wish the Yankees luck.

Also on hand was another Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson, looking very fit after having undergone spinal surgery last September. Reggie suffered from spinal stenosis from straining his back while tiling an area in his home and last fall found it difficult to walk more than a few yards on his own power.

“I’m still having regular physical therapy, but I’m making progress,” he said. “It feels good to be back at Yankee Stadium.”

Yanks pitch in

Suffice it to say that the relatively quiet spring training this year has been shaken by the incidents in Japan. With so many Japanese players in the major leagues these days, concern over families in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant drama that have traumatized that nation has been paramount.

The Yankees led the way in the reaction by donating $100,000 to support rescue and relief efforts. Of the total, $50,000 will be given to the Salvation Army and $50,000 to the Red Cross, both of which are already working in relief efforts on the ground in Japan.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the terrible earthquake in Japan,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “We hope that the international community does everything in its power to support and assist the Japanese people in their time of need.”

Greenberg ‘chucked’

Good riddance to Chuck Greenberg is the way Yankees fans should look at his departure from a brief run (seven months) as chief executive officer of the Rangers. As if getting to the World Series last year for the first time in the franchise’s 50-season history wasn’t enough, Greenberg felt compelled to insult Yankees fans with his remarks about the behavior of some boisterous individuals who took verbal aim at some wives of Texas personnel during the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium.

You may recall Greenberg’s comments: “I thought Yankee fans, frankly, were awful. They were either violent or apathetic, neither of which is good. So I thought Yankee fans were by far the worst of any I’ve seen in the postseason. I thought they were an embarrassment.”

I love that “I’ve ever seen in the post-season,” as if the Rangers have made a habit of getting to the dance. All the whining did was to get Greenberg a rebuke from commissioner Bud Selig, who ordered him to apologize.

Even worse, though, was the boast that by extending the contract talks with free agent pitcher Cliff Lee, Greenberg opened the door for the Phillies to come along and snatch the lefthander away from the outstretched arms of the Yankees. Greenberg’s chest was swelling over the Rangers having outmaneuvered the Yankees in obtaining Lee in a trade from the Mariners last summer. That deal cost Texas its top prospect, first baseman Justin Smoak, as Yankees general manager hung on to infield prospect Eduardo Nunez.

Lee’s return to Philadelphia left the Rangers with nothing to show for giving up Smoak, but Greenberg chose to pat himself on the back with the consolation that at least the pitcher did not go to the Yankees. Some in the media felt Yankees president Randy Levine lowered himself by responding to Greenberg’s characterization, but I for one was amused and bolstered by the retort.

“He has been in the game for a few minutes and yet he thinks he knows what everyone is thinking,” Levine said. “He could really impress us when he keeps the Rangers off of welfare and keeps them from receiving revenue sharing the next three years.”

Greenberg deserved to hear that, but Randy could have held his breath because the loud-mouthed newcomer had no chance to survive in the Texas organization if he got on the wrong side of Nolan Ryan, which Greenberg apparently did. The Hall of Fame pitcher can do no wrong in the Lone Star State and could probably get elected governor there without having to spend one minute on a campaign trail.

In point of fact, it was Greenberg’s third visit to Lee in Arkansas – without Ryan, this time – that hurt the Rangers’ chances of re-signing him. As for swaying him from the Yankees, Lee made it clear that the Phillies were always his priority based on the good feeling he had pitching for them in their pennant-winning 2009 season. That he rejected a seven-year contract offer from the Yankees for a five-year deal from the Phillies was a pretty good indication where Lee’s heart lay, and it had nothing to do with Greenberg, whose 15 minutes are now up.